She would have been 72 years old today. Always a beauty, and for as long as I can remember, consumed with it, she would have been sad if she knew that in her last years her acrylic nails weren’t painted a bright red.
Her fingernails were one of her obsessions. The tinge of nail glue could sometimes overshadow the baked-in cigarette smell her body emitted. Fake fingernails and cigarettes. Two of the things I disliked about my sister for many years. But I loved her more than those dislikes.
I’m not certain when she began wearing acrylic nails, but I do remember when she started smoking. She was 23; I was 12. She had moved out of our family home, now an independent woman and on her own. She came to eat supper with us and I had always enjoyed taking a look-see into her pocketbook. If she knew, she never told on me, but this time I told on her. I found cigarettes–long, sexy ones.
My sister, Velda was long and sexy, a beauty queen winner, and to me, a bumpy-faced, flat-chested little sister with worshipful eyes, THE queen. At some point, in my early teens, I begrudgingly began telling people that Sister got the beauty, but I got the brains.
What was she doing with cigarettes in her pocketbook?! Surely she wasn’t smoking them? My sister? With cigarettes?
Perhaps that’s the day I began reasoning “Sister=beauty, Beverly=brains.” I had to make sense of her imperfection. And mine.
I carefully put them back in the exact spot I found them. Mama called me to supper. I was pumped. I blurted out as soon as my butt hit the maple chair, “Sister has cigarettes in her pocketbook!”
I wish I could recall every detail of that moment, the disbelieving looks on my parents’ faces, the lecture she received, her punishment.
Lecture?! Punishment?! No, she was let off Scott-free! I, on the other hand, should have gotten a butt-whipping, but the scolding felt just as bad.
“Velda is 23 years old, Beverly. She can make her own choices. You are NOT to snoop around in her pocketbook. YOU KNOW BETTER! SHAME ON YOU!”
Well, something like that was said. I suppose I’ve forgotten how it went down because it wasn’t in my favor.
Sister smoked longer than she wore acrylic nails. Perhaps she began wearing them to take the attention away from the yellowing skin between her right hand’s index and middle fingers.
Western Electric, her employer from 1966-1996, moved her to Oklahoma City in 1990. She would make two visits home every year, always staying with our mother. She respected Mama’s wishes and always smoked on the back porch, even on the cold days during her vacation at Christmas. Wesley, our oldest and most headstrong son, detested her smoking habit as much as I did. He probably heard me complain about it.
But he loved his Aunt Velda dearly too. Never having children of her own, she gave every Christmas gift my boys asked from her. She spoiled them year-round. Cards came often with two $5 bills tucked inside and a note that read, “Take Wesley and Andy to get some candy and a toy.”
I left Wesley to spend the night with Mama and Sister during his Christmas break from school one night when he was just over six years old. He too, all those years later, decided to take a look-see into one of her personal items sometime during the course of that evening. I imagine he found the cigarettes in the same little box-of-a-bedroom I did. But this time, it wasn’t just a pack of cigarettes in a pocketbook, it was a whole carton of them in her suitcase.
I suppose he decided that telling on her wouldn’t make sense; we all knew she smoked. So he took it upon himself to punish her. He stomped the heck out of that entire carton. Oh I wish I had been there!
The next day, I made the thirty minute trip with our youngest, Andy, to Mama’s to pick up Wesley. I knew something was up when we arrived–he just wasn’t himself.
“Wesley, tell your mother what you did,” his Aunt Velda insisted, shortly after we arrived.
“Oh dear me,” I thought, “what has he broken?”
Wesley’s face grew beet-red and his eyes began to tear up. Sobbing, he said, “Mommy, I stomped all over Aunt Velda’s cigarettes.”
I vaguely recall telling her that Wesley would pay for them. I’m glad cigarettes were cheaper then than they are now. It would have broken his piggy bank.
Sister’s love of cigarettes ended abruptly sometime between 2003-2004; I can’t recall the exact year, but I do know it shocked me because she literally just STOPPED smoking.
“I don’t need them anymore,” she told me.
“Wow! Good for you.” I replied.
At that time, I had no clue what was coming. Of course, we never do. But I am 99.999% sure that she was able to give up something so addictive without pause because of fronto-temperal dementia, of which she would be diagnosed in early September of 2006.
When I found that pack of cigarettes in her purse in 1970 I had no clue that she would smell like nicotine (or whatever myriad of chemicals cigarettes contain) for over thirty years. But when she quit, I began to smell her perfume again. And the nail glue.
In loving memory of my sister, Velda January 10, 1947-September 6, 2013
See also My Sister Velda, Queen of the Elms